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Examination Questions on King Lear

Question: How, according to Dowden, do we fix the order of the plays?

Answer: According to Mr. Dowden, there are three ways of fixing the date of a play:

(A) By evidence wholly external. (a) The entrance on the stationer's register always bearing in mind that the play was sometimes entered before it was written, and sometimes not until it had been in circulation for some time. (b) Reference to the play by a contemporary writer, the date of whose work is known: for instance, mention is made of twelve of Shakespeare's plays in Meres's Palladis Tamia. (c) By quotations from the play in a work whose date is known, remembering that Shakespeare may have quoted from his contemporary instead of vice versa, (d) Some information may be gained by ascertaining the company which acted the play, or the theatre at which it was performed: for instance, we can fix a downward limit to the date of Henry VIII, when we know that it was being acted when the Globe Theatre was burned.

(B) By evidence partly external and partly internal, (a) Reference to an historical event whose date is known. (b) Quotations from a book whose date is known: for instance, the devils in Edgar's speech, just before the trial scene, receive their names from Harsnet's Declaration of Popish Impostures. Hence we infer that King Lear was written after 1603 the date of the publication of Harsnet's book.

(C) By evidence wholly internal. (a) Change in style and diction. At first Shakespeare clothes his thought in full, flowing language, - the dress is almost too loose. But as his imagination becomes more powerful and energetic, as his knowledge of life increases, language becomes inadequate for the expression of the ideas that throng through his brain. In the passionate earnestness and vehement action of his soul, thought changes so quickly that it is difficult to comprehend, to the full extent, the meaning of his expressions. (b) His judgment and taste become more refined. (c) Characterization changes. (d) Entire reflective power deepens. (e) Sympathy with the passions of men and the power to express them increases. (f) Humour becomes more refined, and works in conjunction with his (g) deepening pathos. Finally (h) his entire moral reach is expanded. His understanding of his fellow-being matures by experience, his conception of woman is more delicate and refined, and the general spirit of his works changes from the joyous, careless happiness of the comedies to the grave, bitter, yet intensely brilliant genius of the later tragedies.

Mr. Dowden divides Shakespeare's dramatic authorship into four periods. Commencing with 1588 or 1590, he assigns the period up to 1595 to dramatic apprenticeship and calls the period "In the workshop," because now Shakespeare is employed on light and fanciful plays and is adapting old plays. From 1595 to 1601 the poet was employed on comedies and histories, exercising the plastic energy of his imagination on the world as seen through a poet's spectacles. Now he is "In the world," amassing a fortune, and drinking deep draughts of worldly pleasure.

From 1601 to 1608 was the period of the sterner comedies and most powerful tragedies. He has known sorrow now, and it has taught him to probe the human heart, and to express its varied passions. Life's restless billows have swept over a soul that re-echoes "Out of the depths" the hoarse roar of the ocean's tumult. Next comes the period when the poet reaches a calm which is only attained by passing through and beyond the turmoil of life's conflicting elements. From 1608 to 1613, the Romances were produced by a mind freed by trial from the dross which, while it could not dim the lustre of genius, yet concealed the strength and purity of the moral faculty.

Besides the tests already given, Mr. Dowden gives "End-stopped and run on verses, rhyme, weak endings," and a few others.


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How to cite this article:
Williams, Maggie. Shakespeare Examinations. Ed. William Taylor Thom, M. A. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1888. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/kinglear/examq/mthree.html >.
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